MILAN — “I’m not about to do a pleated skirt or Frankenstein boots for Zegna, but I have developed a new sense of freedom from the confidence I feel in having achieved a balance between formality and fashion for the brand,” said Stefano Pilati.
This story first appeared in the June 19, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In the two years he has been creative director at the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, Pilati’s lead at the Italian men’s wear powerhouse has grown more assertive and defined and his fall collection was applauded by retailers as his best to date.
Sun-kissed and relaxed despite the pending spring show a few days away, Pilati spoke affably with WWD about his path so far and the prospects going forward.
“It’s a continuous evolution,” said the designer, offering a glimpse into the new season, which will be shown in Milan on Saturday. “There are Zegna’s specific codes, and tailoring is an important category, but here I’ve worked not only on the silhouettes but also on lighter constructions. The construction becomes a detail of the look.”
Fluidity and lightness remain a must from previous seasons for Pilati, as well as layering, but he highlighted his work on “transparencies. Layering is done as a visual and aesthetic approach, not only in terms of clothing.”
Asked about the recent gender-neutral trend seen on other catwalks, Pilati pointed out he had introduced “lighter, more feminine fabrics seven or eight years ago. Women have the luxury to experience a feeling of lightness on their skin that men often lack. It’s a unique sensation and I’ve felt it myself. I see this lightness more as a function, a feminine fabric that can also be masculine.”
Rather than aiming to preach a message with his designs, Pilati said, the collections are an approach to self-education. “I learn from the collections. I am not a designer that follows trends, sometimes I create them, I translate l’air du temps. It’s a sensibility that leads to intuitions that often are not rational. Rationality then helps rebalance the creative impulse or the instinct, which leads to being more concrete.”
Despite the cerebral statements, Pilati is tuned into reality and is conscious about the male consumer’s daily requirements, without the time or the opportunity to change throughout the day. He’s also aware of their need for comfort and self-confidence, as sportier looks are now widely accepted. At the same time, he cited “a new generation of lawyers, brokers, financial investors” to cater to, for whom “their grandfather’s suit just won’t work,” hence the opportunities for a designer to develop and evolve that wardrobe’s staple with a new, contemporary silhouette.
Pilati credited himself with doing just that for the group, “without overturning the Zegna codes, revisiting the silhouettes of the pants, inventing the Broken Suit, and a formal yet laid-back” look targeting “a new leader, a new Zegna consumer, rather than a fashion blogger greedy for new seasonal trends. I have been credited with creating a balance between formality and fashion. I am a fashion designer, and sometimes the fashion spirit pushes more compared with the rationality of formality, as I have increasingly emphasized the fashion message.”
Saying with a laugh that he’s not a loose cannon, Pilati candidly admitted he’s had his doubts. “The company is not called Stefano Pilati, I am talking with Gildo Zegna about strategic choices, and if I have doubts, I call him and we discuss things to reach our shared goals. The work of a designer is one of ongoing progression. You go back to the designs, you redo them, fine-tune them, maybe return to something you did before that was off-center or too ahead of the times and go back and elaborate it.”
The designer said he felt “the fashion factor had progressed” and that, “once the fundamental codes had been established — tailoring, exclusive fabrics and innovation — [he] naturally felt [he] could let [himself] go and develop the fashion factor,” underscoring Zegna’s personal support and “bravery” in spearheading the project.
Pilati is also leaving his mark on turning the group’s shows into events. For example, in January he recreated a luscious forest, with mountains of dirt and birdcalls — greenery that headed to Oasis Zegna, a company-funded reserve in the Biella Alps. For fall 2014, attendees watched a mesmerizing video backdrop that depicted a journey from the outer reaches of the cosmos, and was realized with the help of an astrophysicist and a professor of acoustic astronomy. Through this production, Pilati’s “goal was for Zegna’s image to be that of an international player in the fashion industry.”
Conscious that this is the “era of Instagram and the Kardashians,” the designer felt Zegna needs “to present the collections with spectacularity, especially in Milan. You read about crazy budgets [for shows at other brands], but they work. The dream is not only to be invited to the show and to touch the clothes, the dream is to enter the atmosphere, as part of the designer’s more global vision. [Karl] Lagerfeld docet [teaches].”
Pilati said that, in terms of visuals for the shows, he has reflected Zegna’s own “territory, the industry, which is not easy, packaging a show around this,” citing the videos showing the group’s sophisticated machinery projected during his debut show.
While he works for an Italian fashion house, he continues to live in Berlin, “the place in Europe where I feel the best,” he said. Praising his “exceptional team,” Pilati said he has opted for distance from a corporate environment.
“Designers are ambitious, narcissistic, self-centered, they want recognition and they want to save the world and they absorb everything. [Living far away] helps creativity and to remain objective,” reasoned Pilati.
A sportsman, the designer explained how he enjoys skiing, running, cycling and body building, all to “move the concentration from abstract and intellectual problems to the body, which helps to be more conscious of yourself, to build your self-confidence. You are not only intellect and emotions but also body.”